Human Rights and Freedom from State Tyranny: Country Studies — Morocco

Morocco Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status:  Partly Free; Freedom Ranking: 4.5; Political Rights: 5; Civil Liberties: 4. 



The Kingdom of Morocco is located on the northwestern coast of Africa. Originally populated by Berber tribes, Arab settlers established a series of dynastic kingdoms that successfully resisted colonial occupation. In 1777, Morocco, under the Alouite kingdom, was the first country to recognize the sovereignty of the United States and in 1786 it signed the American-Moroccan Treaty of Friendship, the oldest active treaty between nation states. After the French and British extended colonial influence over northern Africa in the 19th century, the country fell to French colonial rule in 1912. Morocco regained independence in 1956, ruled by a hereditary monarchy that initially was quite severe in its governance but gradually reformed. In 2011, King Mohammed VI responded to protests inspired by the Arab Spring in neighboring countries, by announcing a new constitution, holding elections for parliament that November, and allowing the moderate Justice and Development Party (PJD) to lead a new government. Political power, however, did not devolve significantly and the King retains power over foreign policy, the armed forces, the security services, the judiciary, much of the media, and a large part of the economy. Although political parties function, there are a number of restrictions of basic human rights. Expressing criticism of the King or his advisers, Islam, and actions related to Morocco’s rule over Western Sahara is banned (Morocco remains in control over the Western Sahara, a province once controlled by Spain that seeks independence). Freedom House consistently ranks Morocco in the lower end of the “partly free” category (4.5 in freedom ranking) and its 2016 Freedom in the World Report gives it lower scores in several political rights and civil liberties measurements.

Known for its trading centers, scholarship, and a previously general climate of moderation and tolerance, Morocco was once home to the world's largest Sephardic Jewish community before its members largely emigrated to Israel. By ethnicity, Morocco’s population of 33 million people (2014 estimate) is today almost exclusively Arab and Berber and by religion is 99 percent Sunni Muslim. Today, the kingdom suffers from widespread poverty and low levels of economic development. In 2014, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked Morocco 61st in the world in nominal GDP overall (approximately $110 billion in total output). Its per capita ranking, however, was only 122nd in the world in nominal gross national income (GNI) at approximately a $3,000 average yearly income.


The Maghreb, a Berber term for the northwest African region west of the Nile, was populated by as early as 10,000 BC by Berbers, a largely agricultural and hunting community with a distinct language. They become increasingly nomadic as climate conditions in North Africa grew harsher. Around the 12th century BC, the area was colonized by Arab-Phoenicians, who dominated the economy by developing trading colonies in eastern parts of the country and integrating the area into the Mediterranean economy. From the eighth to the second centuries BC, Carthage held sway over northwestern Africa until it was defeated and the city razed by Rome in 146 BC. In the Carthaginian and Roman periods, military regimes dominated the economy and trade over the coastlines but not in the interior, where Berber kingdoms negotiated payments of tribute to the dominant power. The fall of Rome in the fifth century AD left Morocco open to invasion by the Vandals, the Visigoths, and , subsequently, the Byzantine Greeks.

The Origins of Modern Morocco

In the seventh century AD with the arrival of additional Arab traders and settlers and the adoption of Islam by the Berbers. Arabs asserted political control but because of Morocco’s distance from the original Damascus and Baghdad caliphates, the country evolved separately from Arab countries in politics and religion. The Idrisid dynasty (788-974) rebuilt the country as a center of learning and trade. Morocco's Arab rulers ceded power to a joint Berber-Arab tribal confederation that dominated the Maghreb. Spain established control of the territory for 200 years until the 13th century. Arab tribes retook power in 1511 with the establishment of the Saadi dynasty (1511-1663). The Alaouite dynasty that followed (1664–1912) was the longest period of uninterrupted rule in Moroccan history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Morocco consolidated its hold over coastal territory facing Spain, and defeated an invasion attempt by the Ottoman Empire. The Alaouite kingdom was the first government to recognize the United States and signed a friendship treaty with the American government in 1786, the oldest active treaty between nation states.

French Colonization—Moroccan Resistance

The Moroccan kingdom resisted foreign control until the 19th century, when the French and British extended their control over North Africa. Gradually, the French gained special status over most of the Maghreb. In 1912, with the signing of the Treaty of Fez, Morocco became a French protectorate. Spain, was awarded the Western Sahara. As a protectorate, Morocco retained technical sovereignty under the leadership of the sultan, but in practice it was governed under a colonial administration. The general policy of the colonial administration was to encourage settlement by French citizens (known as colons), who would receive favorable treatment in business, government, and civilian life. Modernization in transportation, industry, and agriculture was designed to assist the French economy. Following World War I, a Moroccan nationalist movement arose and in December 1934 the Moroccan Action Committee (CAM) proposed a "Plan of Reforms" that included a return to indirect rule, the establishment of representative councils, and the inclusion of Moroccans in government — all of which had been stipulated in the original Treaty of Fez. Radical members split from moderates in CAM to form a nationalist political party with the explicit aim of independence. The group was suppressed in 1937 but formed the basis of a more successful party called Istiqlal (Independence) established at the end of World War II.

From War to Independence

When American and British forces invaded Morocco n November 1942, the country was under the administration of the collaborationist Vichy government. Assisted by Moroccans, the Allies routed Vichy French forces as part of the successful campaign to drive the Axis powers out of northern Africa. In January 1944, the newly formed Istiqlal Party, citing the Atlantic Charter's promise of self-government for all peoples (see History), presented a demand for independence to the resident general of the new Free French government. The sultan, recognized by the Free French as the local leader of Morocco, supported the call for independence, but the resident general rejected any change in protectorate status since colons and French business interests largely remained opposed to independence or reform.

In 1952, the murder of a Moroccan labor leader sparked riots in Casablanca The French authorities responded harshly by banning the Istiqlal and Communist parties and exiling Sultan Mohammed V to Madagascar in 1953. The sultan's replacement, Mohammed Ben Aarafa, was widely seen as illegitimate by Moroccans and his appointment galvanized opposition to French rule. Considering the deteriorating conditions in neighboring Algeria, a more important colony, the French government capitulated to public protests and brought Sultan Mohammed V back from exile in 1955. The sultan, now universally popular, negotiated the return of Moroccan independence, which was formally recognized on March 2, 1956. In 1975, Spain agreed to end colonial rule in Western Sahara. Morocco gained control over the northern part of the territory and Mauritania gained control over the southern part. 

King Hassan II of Morocco

Authoritarian Monarchy: Repression and Reform

Moroccan independence did not bring freedom. Mohammed V imposed a constitutional monarchy in 1957 citing fears that radicals in the national movement wanted to overthrow the sultanate and establish a one-party state. He assumed the title of king and repressed any opposition to his rule until his death in 1961. His son, Hassan II, assumed the throne for a reign that lasted 37 years. Initially, Hassan II sought to establish his own legitimacy through a referendum on a new constitution that created a bicameral parliament and an independent judiciary. But the king retained supreme executive powers. Hassan ordered "states of emergency" in response to political opposition, attempted military coups, and social upheaval. This early period of Hassan II's rule was known as "the years of lead" because of the number of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and arrests of political opponents.

Unusually for an authoritarian leader, especially one known for severe repression, Hassan II initiated a reform and reconciliation process during his last years of rule. He freed political prisoners in 1991, enacted constitutional amendments in 1996 that established a new parliament with expanded powers, launched an independent commission of inquiry to examine human rights abuses, and invited exiled opponents to return. Despite reports of irregularities during elections held in 1997, many previously banned parties gained representation in parliament’s Chamber of Representatives. Hassan II asked the leader of the opposition Socialist Party to lead a coalition government.

Regional Policy and Western Sahara

Hassan II, generally known as a pro-Western leader and ally of the United States, was also a proponent of peace with Israel after the 1973 war and established de facto recognition of Israel. But Hassan’s son and successor, Mohammad VI, suspended Morocco’s ties with Israel in 2000 due to the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Morocco’s pro-Western and moderate reputation is contradicted by its Western Sahara policy. Historically part of Morocco, the territory was under Spanish control from 1884 until 1975, when the post-Franco government relinquished northern and southern parts of the Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania, both of which annexed their respective territory. Since 1973, Polisario, an independence movement, has sought national self-determination for Western Sahara and fought an ongoing guerrilla war with Morocco and Mauritania. In 1979, Mauritania ceded its claim to Morocco, which annexed the southern part. In 1991, a UN-brokered peace agreement called for a referendum to determine whether the territory would be granted independence from Morocco. Although a cease-fire has been in effect since then, no referendum has been held and efforts to resolve who should be able to vote have repeatedly failed.

Unusually for an authoritarian leader . . . Hassan II initiated a reform and reconciliation process during his last years of rule.  

The Moroccan government has a record of human rights abuses in the territory and continues to repress Sahrawi (Western Sahara) nationalists as well as Moroccans who express disagreement over the government's policy toward the region. In 2005, demonstrations for independence in El Aaiun were followed by a severe crackdown condemned by the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Unfinished Reconciliation and Reform

When King Hassan's son, Mohammed VI, assumed the throne in 1999, he continued generally in his father's reformist political direction. Mohammed issued two amnesties that freed thousands of political prisoners and reduced the sentences for tens of thousands of others. The 2002 election saw improved procedures and international monitors deemed them free and fair. A plurality of the vote was won by the Union of Popular Socialist Forces (USPF) and a majority of seats were held by socialist and nationalist parties previously considered to be in opposition. In addition to allowing greater electoral democracy, Mohammed VI’s government allowed Berber to be taught in schools for the first time in 2003, passed a law in 2004 improved women’s rights by placing restrictions on polygamy and allowing women to initiate divorce, among other provisions, and, also in 2004, established the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER) with a mandate to investigate human rights abuses under his predecessors from 1956 to 1999. To head the IER, he named a former opposition leader and political prisoner, Driss Benzekri. The IER’s scope was limited (it lacked the power to compel testimony or formally charge officials), but it allowed the public testimony of victims and families and compensation to be awarded to victims. The public nature of the commission led to the resignation of several officials.

Human Rights

The reforms undertaken by Hassan II and Mohammed VI were seemingly impressive in their scope by the standards of the Middle East and North Africa, but these reforms and those adopted in 2011 in response to the Arab Spring  protests (see below) make no real institutional changes to the constitutional monarchy. (By contrast, see the Country Study of Tunisia.) Overall, human rights abuses have abated under Mohammed VI, but there are no institutional impediments to prevent their recurrence.

The king retains full decision-making in most significant areas and the parliament has limited powers. The king continues to appoint and dismiss cabinet members, the prime minister (although requiring approval by the legislature), security and military chiefs, and all judges. He also retains the power to dismiss parliament (although now it is in consultation with the prime minister) and to declare states of emergency without parliament’s approval. Political imprisonment and torture remain common, especially against Sahrawis, secular Moroccans expressing criticism of government policy, and members of the Salafi Islamic sect, who challenge the King’s constitutional role as “commander of the faithful.”  It is reported that several hundred of the 1,000 Islamists arrested in 2003 in response to a terrorist attack in Casablanca remain in prison serving sentences imposed after unfair proceedings in which many due process rights were violated.

The monarch dominates the economy, giving the king enormous leverage to enforce his rule. Mohammed VI is the majority stakeholder in a broad network of private and public sector firms.  As a result there is a high concentration of wealth both around the king (whose assets are estimated to total at least $2.5 billion according to Forbes magazine) and his close associates, known as the Makhzen. Such wealth concentration has resulted in Morocco’s low standing in most economic indicators (it ranks 130th in the world in the UN Human Development Index). More than forty percent of the population is illiterate and fifteen percent lives in dire poverty.

Broadcast media is entirely or partially state-owned, while the government exerts significant control over other media through its broad economic control (for example by directing businesses not to advertise in certain newspapers). Although there are many independent papers, self-censorship remains common due to the harsh punishments for libel and common court actions for coverage deemed inappropriate by the government. Newspapers that report on sensitive issues, such as corruption, policy in Western Sahara, or the role of the monarchy, are shut down or fined, and their editors have been imprisoned.

Freedom of assembly, and association are tolerated to some degree but not respected in any full sense. The government has tolerated protests organized by the February 11 Movement, trade unions, and others, but often they are prevented or dispersed. The trade union movement is generally independent but its right to strike is restricted and it is not allowed to take positions on broad national policy. Many organizations are denied registration.

Morocco signed UN human rights conventions as part of Muhammed VI’s early reforms, but the government has directly challenged the UN human rights system in its policy towards Western Sahara by failing to adhere to the UN agreement mandating a referendum on independence. Morocco continues to violate both the agreement and human rights conventions by denying self governance to Sahrawis (Western Saharans) and frequently violating their human rights (see below).

Current Issues

The face of the February 11 Movement, the rapper Mouad  Eelrhouat, has been arrested three times. . . . In general, February 11 Movement activists express skepticism of any future changes.

The Arab Spring began with successful protests that toppled the longstanding dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt in late 2010 and early 2011. Even earlier in 2010, however, a group of opposition intellectuals had met to issue the Casablanca Appeal, which called for political reform in Morocco. The events in Tunisia and Egypt inspired protests in Rabat on February 20, 2011. Protesters demanded greater democracy. In response, King Mohammed VI agreed to political changes and drafted a new Constitution that required the King to form a government from the leading political party, established greater gender equality, and established Berber as an official language. Elections in November 2011 were won by a new moderate Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD). As required by the new constitution, Muhammed VI asked the PJD leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, to be prime minister, and he put together a coalition government that included the opposition Istiqlal. Political changes, however, proved largely cosmetic, with political decision-making, especially in areas of security and religion, still controlled by King Mohammed VI and the Makhzen. Istiqlal withdrew from the government in July 2013 in protest over anemic economic policy and the PJD had to form a new coalition government.

Since the 2011 reforms, however, Muhammad VI has backtracked on implementing broader changes and cracked down on democracy activists. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) documented 2,000 cases of arrests in the past few years. A number of leading participants in the February 11 Movement were sentenced to imprisonment for from six months to one year for participating in a union protest in April 2014 After the same event, a leading trade union activist, Wafae Charaf, was sentenced to 2 years’ imprisonment for “falsely reporting” a crime to security police that she had been abducted and tortured by unknown men. Another February 20 youth activist, Oussama Husn, was sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment for posting a video online describing his own abduction and torture by unknown men. Mouad Belrhouat, a rapper who became the face of the February 11 Movement for his song “Stop the Silence,” has been arrested three times, the last time for allegedly selling tickets illegally to a state football match. He was  sentenced to four months in prison and fined $1,200. In general, while February 11 Movement activists continue to organize protests, they express skepticism of any future changes.

A large group of political prisoners are Sahrawis who protest in favor of independence or otherwise express opposition to the Moroccan government’s policies. Twenty-two Sahrawis were sentenced to lengthy terms of 20 years to life imprisonment in 2013 for their involvement in a violent incident provoked by police who forcibly dismantled a protest camp in Western Sahara in 2010 resulting in the deaths of 11 security officers. In all cases, the convictions were based on confessions that the defendants said were obtained through torture. The government did announce that it would cease to try Sahrawis in military courts and transferred the case of one Sahrawi activist, Mbarek Daoudi, to a civilian court, which sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment.

The authorities continue to harass and repress journalists who criticize the government. Mahmoud Lhaisan, a television journalist, was arrested in July 2014 after he reported on the forced dispersal of Sahrawi demonstrators who called for independence during a rally in Rabat.Authorities also impeded journalist Ali Lmrabet from registering a new satirical weekly after a 10-year ban on his practicing journalism in Morocco had expired. In May 2015, Hiram Mansouri, an investigative journalist, was sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment for adultery, a crime under Moroccan law, which Human Rights Watch called a clear political application of the law.